SJF• Proper 25a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him, Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?
There is an old saying that goes, “Charity begins at home.” You’ve probably heard that said from time to time. It usually comes up in a church context when someone on a vestry or church board suggests sending money or resources out to the mission field, and someone else points out that there’s plenty of work to do right where they are. And of course, that’s the problem with, “Charity begins at home.” It usually means, in practice, “Charity stays at home.”
When the Pharisees came to test Jesus, our Gospel today tells us, the lawyer among them asked him what the most important law was; natural question for a lawyer. And he answered, as many a Jew of his day would, by citing two laws from the Law of Moses. First, from Deuteronomy: that one must love God with heart and mind and soul and strength; and second from Leviticus: that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself.
What these two laws show us is that charity — love — does begin at home, with oneself and one’s immediate neighbors; but that it cannot stay at home. True love, true charity, reflects the compassion of God, and though it starts at home, it reaches to the ends of the earth — just as the love of God does.
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Charity begins at home: because if you do not love yourself you will not be a very loving person to anyone else. Many personal relationships go sour because people feel unworthy and unlovable, and they reject the love that others try to show to them. This was the lesson of many a fable and fairy tale, for example, of the Beast whose heart was finally warmed by Beauty, who taught him to stop treating himself as a monster, and to realize his own lovableness.
Yes, charity — love — starts at home. But charity cannot stay at home: few people are as unlovable as those who are so full of self-love that they don’t reach out to those around them. The truly loving person is able both to love and to be loved, starting at home but reaching out beyond it, from self, to neighbor, and to God.
For you can’t jump right to claiming to love God if you don’t start at home first. As the beloved disciple John wrote, “Those who do not love their brothers and sisters, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” How many people down through the years have quietly and contentedly claimed to love and serve God while ignoring God’s children — their brothers and sisters in the faith! There is a powerful indictment in the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Do not, in your journey to worship Christ in the church, pass him by where he lies starving and freezing in the street! You cannot claim to love God if you do not love God’s children.”
Jesus taught us, in fact, that the primary way in which we show our love of God is in how we love each other. He was highly critical of the temple authorities for putting on such a show of piety while taking the last few resources of the widows and orphans. He criticized the Pharisees for imposing rules of such high demanding virtue that they lost sight of human reality.
And so Jesus offered a stumper of a question to the Pharisees, who were trying to test him, to catch him and trip him and if possible bring him up on charges. Jesus asked them how it was possible that David could call his own son, “Lord.”
Now this question stumped the Pharisees, as Jesus intended it to do! They lived in a world in which the younger always served the older, a world in which it was inconceivable that a man would call his son, let alone his many times great-great-great-grandson “my lord.”
Things simply didn’t work that way in their neatly ordered world. The humble and the poor are the servants; the rich and the mighty are the lords over them. That’s the way the world works. The Pharisees didn’t understand that what Christ brought them, what the disciples would later reveal was a movement that would “upside-down” their neatly ordered world. Had they been able to understand this one riddle, they might have grasped what Jesus was about: that turnabout of true charity, in which those who have serve those without, in which a leader becomes a nursemaid, in which the master takes up the role of a serving-woman and washes his disciples’ feet, in which a many many times great-great-grandfather looks to the distant future to see his distant son and heir lifted from the earth, to draw the whole world to himself,
and calls him, Lord.
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As you know, I was traveling in South Africa and England this past two weeks, and in fact had a brief stop in Ireland when the plane developed problems and had to turn back. (Rather more travel than I had counted on!) But I learned something in South Africa, where I had a wonderful experience meeting people from across the continent — from South Africa of course, but there were clergy from Sweden, people from New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, from Rwanda, from Kenya — many parts of Africa, discussing many issues. And the one thing that surprised me was that the most inspiring talk I heard came from Chicago, from the priest in a parish in Chicago who presented to the consultation some of what her work is.
Her parish, which is called “All Saints,” when she came there about 18 years ago, had about 25 members. And the first thing she did, to challenge that congregation, was to challenge them much as Jesus the Pharisees — to suggest that what they needed to do was to look out to their neighborhood, to see what was going on, and to try to meet the needs of some of the people in that struggling, difficult neighborhood. And they began a very modest feeding program, having a hot meal served once a week.
Well, 18 years later, that church now has over 600 members, and they serve, still, one day a week, 400 people: a hot meal every Tuesday. They listened to the Lord, who challenged them, and told them to look beyond themselves to their neighbors.
And what I want to do is challenge us, here at St James Church, to do the same. As you know, some years ago, we had a dinner served on Thanksgiving Day — to homeless people and whoever was in the neighborhood. We stopped doing that a few years back and switched to Christmas, and I have to say the Christmas meal was not nearly as successful. I think one of the problems being that by the time it gets into December it’sgotten very cold, and people aren’t out on the streets — God knows where they have gone, but they aren’t out there. But on Thanksgiving, they still are. And I would like to challenge us once again to do what we did a few years ago, and open our doors and welcome people in to eat in our parish hall, now that the hall has been restored and prepared, we really have no excuse not to do it.
And I’m reminded of a wonderful hymn, which we’re not singing today because this just came to me this morning, the text of which says:
For the love of God is broader than the measure of Man’s mind,
and the love of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful we should take him at his word,
and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
I’m sure you recognize that hymn. And I would like to challenge us today — and I’m doing this with the mind of honoring Bonnie’s parish, All Saints — with All Saints Day coming, and you’re having in your bulletin this morning an envelope for our annual All Saints Day remembrance, where we remember those who have died, our families and friends, and we normally put that money into our endowment fund, which is a wonderful thing, and a help for our future the church. But I would like to suggest that this year we take that offering that is dedicated to our own personal saints, our friends and family who have gone before us, and dedicate that money, and any other money we can raise, to put on a really splendid Thanksgiving Day celebration, and welcome people from far and wide, our neighbors in the Bronx, to come in and have a hot meal on a cold day.
Will you do that with me, will you do that, my friends. And next week I will ask for your help — and I’ll have a sign-up sheet prepared at the back of the church for those willing to pitch in, perhaps to cook something and bring it on that day. And the funds we raise will go to buy supplies and food, and whatever we need to help feed the hungry on that day.
Are you with me, my friends? Shall we allow God to challenge us and allow the love of God to grow in our hearts so that we can open our doors to our neighbors, who are less well off than we are? Let us do that, friends. It is what Jesus wants from us, and it is in his name we pray; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.